Focus On Boccia & TASS
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Boccia is one of the fastest growing disability sports in the world and England is at the forefront of its rapid expansion.
Simon Rushworth heard how the decision to offer emerging athletes a tailored support package is paying dividends.
Jabe Peake proudly describes himself as ‘a bit of a geek’. But he’s doing himself a disservice. In fact, it would be wrong to imagine the 18-year-old A-level student as a professional nerd with his head constantly buried in books. Peake might be a geek but he’s also a national champion in his chosen sport and a hot prospect for future Paralympic glory.
“Before boccia, I was a bit of a geek,” said the Cambridge-based sixth former and reigning Boccia England Cup BC1 champion.
“It’s fair to say I still am! But I love challenging myself to be better as a person and an athlete. Boccia allows me to do that.
“And I’ve realised during the past year that sport isn’t all about winning - it’s more about personal development. For me, playing boccia has really helped me focus on what I’m doing on and off the court.”
Boccia celebrates its 35th anniversary next year and England’s new breed – Peake included - are determined to head into 2019 as world leaders in one of the fastest growing disability sports. But that won’t be easy.
The majority of Boccia athletes are self-funded and the sport has never benefited from the lucrative sponsorship deals and television coverage required to take it to the next level. Peake and his peers must rely on their own commitment and dedication – combined with specialist external support – to make their sporting dreams a reality.
“Being a self-funded athlete is tough,” added 24-year-old Boccia star Tim Hayes, who picked up a silver medal at the 2018 Boccia England Cup Finals and has his sights firmly set on Tokyo 2020. “The national governing body is not in a position to give us financial support and we have to source - and apply for - funding from various charities and organisations to help with equipment, competition and travel costs.
“It’s not easy, especially if you want to compete at the elite level of the game. It involves lots of training, hard work and commitment.”
But Hayes and Peake are two of the lucky ones in a sport that’s constantly striving to progress its best performers. Both men are supported by the Sport England-backed Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) and both benefit from a raft of services designed to boost their Boccia careers.
“It’s been really good me for me to be on the TASS programme this year,” said Hayes. “I get the whole package at Southampton’s Solent University.
“The regular boccia training with a coach and other athletes is great and the strength and conditioning, nutrition, lifestyle and physiotherapy services have been brilliant for me.
“It has really had such a positive impact on my boccia. I'm really enjoying it and it has pushed me on to the next level as an athlete. The funding support has been a huge help and has made a real difference.”
TASS supports more than 400 performance athletes across the country and its partnership with Boccia England (BE) represents a growing commitment to disability sport. With more than 60 athletes on BE’s talent pathway programme, there’s a pressing need to provide greater levels of specialist support to future champions.
“We’ve been working with TASS for the last two or three years,” explained BE’s Talent Manager, Matt Kendrick. “There was a recognition that we needed to support our athletes at a national level and take a more holistic approach.
“By working with TASS we can deliver additional services to our top boccia athletes on a regular basis and a number of our England Performance Group benefit from the support.
“TASS wanted to know more about the unique demands facing Paralympians and athletes with disabilities. It’s been a two-way learning process that’s benefitted both sides.
“It’s not something that we’ve done before and not something TASS had done before but we wanted to work together to see what might happen.
“It’s been a journey but we’re already starting to see the benefits. TASS have had the opportunity to work with athletes with high level physical disabilities and we’ve been able to access a new level of support.”
Beth Moulam is a Social Policy student at the University of York and was another star of the 2018 BE Cup finals. The 24-year-old accesses her TASS support services at Leeds Beckett University and said: “The team at Beckett are great and all year round they’ve supported my efforts to get ready for playing boccia at an elite level again.
“I’ve had great support – in strength and conditioning, nutrition and psychology. My physical strength has come on leaps and bounds. I think BE’s partnership with TASS can only be good for the sport. It’s a great collaboration and absolutely vital to any athlete with aspirations to go further. TASS adds mind and body support to the sporting mix.”
Kendrick is constantly reassessing TASS’s impact on BE but can only see the partnership growing stronger in the future. With 40-plus athletes in action at May’s national championships and thousands of children competing in a groundbreaking schools programme, demand outstrips supply.
“Our athletes are benefiting from TASS support in all kinds of different ways but I’d love to see more join the programme,” he added.
“Jabe is familiar with the demands of being a dual career athlete with a lot going on at the moment. The lifestyle support he’s received on TASS has been excellent.
“Beth has moved classifications and the strength and conditioning support she’s received from TASS has enabled her to play in a completely different way.
“For Tim it’s been about focusing on his power. He’s relatively new to TASS but in a short space of time the support he’s been able to access has made him a more powerful athlete.
“It’s taken a while to embed TASS into what we do and it’s taken time for the TASS practitioners to adjust to working with boccia athletes. But we’re already seeing the benefits.”
For Moulam, TASS support has helped her to bridge the gap between education and sport and allowed the BE Academy athlete to excel at both.
“Being a dual career athlete needs careful thought and balance,” she added. “At times it can be study or sport - especially when assignments and exams come along. Everything needs planning. But who wants a quiet life?”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Peake.
“The season’s schedule is very challenging, intense and full on,” added the Hinchingbrooke School student. “It can be difficult to get the balance right, especially with all the travelling, training camps and competitions. But you just have to adapt, take breaks at the right times, switch off from the game and enjoy time with friends and family. It’s both enjoyable and exhausting! But I guess that’s the life of an elite level student athlete in a nutshell.”
(Photo Credit to Andy Thompson, Sport England, for use of the photos of Jabe Peake.)